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Cultural differences in response styles and scale use

The issue

One particular concern raised in the literature is the extent to which individuals from different cultures or linguistic groups might exhibit systematically different response styles when answering subjective well-being questions. The presence of response styles or linguistic differences that systematically bias responses upwards, downwards or towards the most moderate response categories will distort scores and reduce the accuracy of comparisons between countries. As was the case with demographic and personality differences, it is, however, very difficult to separate differences in scale use and response styles from differences in the genuine subjective well-being of the different groups. This is a particular challenge for scales with subjective content, because unlike more “objective” reports (e.g. income), we lack the ability to cross-validate scores precisely against external references.

The evidence - wider literature

Some of the current evidence on cultural differences in response styles comes from beyond the subjective well-being literature. Marin, Gamba and Marin (1992) examined response styles among Hispanic and non-Hispanic White respondents in the USA, using a range of questions from four different surveys, each with an ordinal response scale, and concerning non-factual information (e.g. attitudes and beliefs rather than behavioural reporting). Their findings suggested that Hispanics preferred more extreme response categories and were more likely to agree with items (i.e. to acquiesce). However, the magnitude of difference varied substantially between studies: for example, in data set one, Hispanics reported extreme responses on 50% of items, whereas non-Hispanic Whites reported them on 47% of items (a very small difference); yet in data set three, Hispanics reported extreme responses on 72% of items, whereas non-Hispanic whites did so on only 58% of items (a much larger difference). Response patterns among more acculturated Hispanics were more similar to those of non-Hispanic whites.

Unfortunately, Marin, Gamba and Marin’s study design (much like those adopted elsewhere in the literature) does not enable one to conclude that this pattern of responding represents greater error: Hispanics in this sample may have agreed more or reported more extreme responses because these best represent how they actually feel, not just how they report their feelings. Response styles are usually assumed to contribute error to the data - but where this is assumed, it is important to demonstrate this reduced accuracy or validity empirically. Almost no studies in the literature appear to take this extra step.

One exception can be found in the work of Van Herk, Poortinga and Verhallen (2004) who examined three sets of data from marketing studies in six EU countries (total N > 6 500). They found systematic differences in acquiescence and extreme response styles, with both styles being more prevalent in data from Mediterranean countries (Greece, Italy and Spain) than from north-western Europe (Germany, France and the United Kingdom). Across 18 different sets of items, there were significant differences in the extent of acquiescence across countries in 17 cases, and country differences had an average effect size of 0.074. Greek respondents were particularly high on extreme responding, and Spanish and Italian respondents also scored consistently higher than those from France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Country differences in extreme responding were significant in 12 out of 18 cases, with an effect size of 0.071, described as “almost of medium size”. As the study also included measures of actual behaviour, the authors could be reasonably confident in attributing their results to response styles - in several tests, they failed to find a relationship between higher levels of scale endorsement and actual behaviour.

In contrast to the extreme response styles described above, it has been suggested that Asian Confucian cultures are more likely to show a preference for more moderate response categories (Cummins and Lau, 2010; Lau, Cummins and McPherson, 2005; Lee, Jones, Mineyama and Zhang, 2002) - although once again there is rarely empirical data demonstrating that this leads to less accurate or valid data. Lee et al. (2002), for example, reported that although culture (Japanese/Chinese/USA) did affect response patterns on a “sense of coherence” measure, this did not attenuate the observed relationship between “sense of coherence” and health - thus implying that scale validity was not adversely affected. What did seem to matter for scale validity in this study, however, was the number of Likert response categories used - and here, there was an interaction with culture, such that 7-point scales showed stronger relationships with health among Japanese respondents, whereas 4- and 5-point scales showed stronger relationships with health among Chinese and American respondents. As the authors themselves conclude, “this is rather disturbing and warrants further investigation” (p. 305).

Some researchers have also reported cultural differences in the extent to which socially desirable responding is likely. For example, Middleton and Jones (2000) found that small samples of undergraduate students from East Asian countries such as Hong Kong (China), Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and China were more likely than North American students to report fewer socially undesirable traits and more socially desirable ones.

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